Living freely and Dying peacefully
Lecture by Radha Burnier, 2nd of August 2005, in Bristol, England.
President of the Theosophical Society, Adyar.
(Freely transcribed in Sweden from a recording.
Freely available on CD.)
Let us first take note of the fact that both birth and death are mysterious. Even so where we have no conscious control, nobody can say when he or she is going to be born, in which family and what race and so on. Nor can we take into our hands the time or the manner in which we shall die. It is because of this many people struggle in life and they are afraid of death. Because they do not know what it is all about. So it is very important to understand both life and death. Living and dying.
First of all perhaps we can ask ourselves the question, what do we mean by living? Does living merely consists of surviving, eating, reproducing, enjoying and dying? This is what all creatures do and most creatures do not belong to the human kingdom. Perhaps living by human beings means very much more than that. Yet there are confusions in our minds.
Let us imagine a person in a koma. He might be breathing. The heart may be pulsating. The brain may have some life in it. But the person is hardly living. And of course, one who has died is not alive. So being attached to a machine, which keeps the heart and the brain going, is obviously not living. Why? Because there is no experiencing. There is no contact with anything outside. An interchange. A person who is alive should normally be able to receive the innumerable impressions, messages, which come from outside. And also be able to communicate something to other forms of life, other human beings, communicate even with Nature, and so on. And this interchange is what we call relationship. So if there is no interchange, no relationship with anything, then, although as we said, the persons heart may be beating and he lives a few years in the hospital, he is hardly alive. And all this can be summad up in the word awareness. When there is no awareness, when the consciousness is not conscious, it is not a state of living. And therefor perhaps we can go on to trying to understand how we are aware. In what depth, with what intensity, with what attention are we really aware.
Most of us are not aware of a vast number of things which we encounter in life. We may pass by a garden and in a moment of clarity we may be aware of the garden. We may be aware that we are passing through the garden. But not of its beauty. Even if we are aware of the beauty, it may be only a superficial awareness. Because our minds are not focused. The mind is absent. It is not fully present and part of it is wondering around, thinking about all kinds of things. Problems which perhaps have worried the person, planning what next to do, going over a misunderstanding with a friend or a family member, thinking of what shopping must be done during the day. All this can go on in the mind, while moving through a garden, or a street. So on the street you may meet a person, who you see with your eyes, but you don’t really see. This happens to all of us, that our awareness is fragmentary, superficial, not really intense. And if living consists in being aware, of being conscious, then the quality of that consciousness or awareness is of very great importance. And one thing that prevents that kind of consciousness from functioning is that we believe, we know, that if being in a koma, or a similar condition, is not really living, we then imagine, that being extremely active, finding exitements, satisfaction, in achieving things, in enjoyments, perhaps even in quarrels and problems, is living. If a person were given the option to be completely quiet or be in a situation where he has misunderstandings and problems and so on, I wonder how many people would choose being quiet. Because if there is not that search for enjoyment for activity and for achievement, it seems as if there is nothing in life to live for. A well known theosophical book Light on the Path says: ”Kill out ambition.” It is the first curse. Almost all the people I have come across say, if there is no ambition, if there is no desire, then what is life about? What do we do? We must have at least a good desire, right sort of ambitions. But that ambition, that desire, that constant seeking of pleasure, excitement, all that gives images in the mind. They create a turmoil and therefor when passing through the street or through a garden or on many other situations the mind refuses to be quiet and to give attention. To be aware.
The awareness is then of a very limited kind. And if life is to be rich and full the awareness has to become much deeper, clearar, more intense. Activity prevents that. And therefor in spite of all activity there is frustration, there is loneliness, there is confusion, perplexity and so on. So to live fully means to give attention and to understand things which we do not even think about now.
It was Matthew Arnold who said Do not let me die before I have begun to live. And we are all living. So was he. But learning to live truly, fully, is a different matter.
And if we want to learn how to give attention, to live a life of awareness, we must start in our everyday life. And there are people who have developed their consciousness so much that they are able to notice and to benefit from many things which we ignore totally.
I suppose you have heard of J. Krishnamurti who was widely known for his teachings. And he writes, and I quote: If you want to learn about a leaf, a leaf of the spring, or a leaf of the summer, you must really look at it. See the symmetry of it, the texture of it, the quality of the living leaf. There is beauty, there is vigour, there is vitality in a single leaf. So to learn about the leaf, the flower, the cloud, the sunset, or a human being, you must look with all intensity.
And probably if we observe ourselves we realize that we hardly begin to look at anything, a fellow human being, even a member of the family, yet alone a leaf or a cloud, before the attention turns to something else. At least to naming the experience, describing it, comparing it with yesterdays experience, or wishing there were a better one. So the mind runs away from fully looking at whatever it happens to encounter.
There is a well known Vietnameese Buddhist teacher whose books sell by the millions. He says: If you have this ability to look, when you look at a piece of paper, you will see not only the paper. You will see the tree from which the paper came, and you will see the water, the earth, which nourish that tree, you will see the cloud into which the water has transformed itself. You will see the rain falling upon the earth because the clouds shades it. So in the paper you will see the whole of life.
And this is not fancy, because the esoteric traditions, all of them, say that in the microcosm there is the whole of macrocosm. It is a hollographic world, in which every atom contains the essential nature of the whole, of which it is a part. But it is not only seeing with attention a leaf, or a piece of paper, but watching many things in life.
Another beautiful passage can be found in the very well known book written by Thoreau, Walden. You know he retired into the woods and lived there absolutely alone, in New England, and he writes about that experience. In the beginning he says: To be alone was somewhat unpleasant but in a midst of gentle rain I was suddenly sensible of such a sweet and beneficial society in Nature, in the very pathway of the drops, and in every sight and sound around my house an infinite and unaccountable friendliness, all at once, like an atmosphere, sustaining me, has made the fancied advantages of human neighbourhood insignificant. And I have never thought of them since. Every little pine-needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctively made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.
And that is something we miss, this feeling of kinship with our fellow human beings, with everything in Nature, even the pine needles and the drops of water, as there is a little drizzle, the animals around, the grass growing. They are all full of life. The vitality and vigour, as Krishnamurti says. And perhaps they are all speaking the language of Nature. In the same book Light on the Path it is said: ”Love itself has Speech.”
And there are many people who have heard the speech of things which we think are inanimate and which we think are not worth having relationship with. And they speak in their own language. In their own way.
In the Koran, I believe, this is pointed out in its own special way.
There is a lot of feeling now about the Muslim being violent and dangerous and so on. But there is a wonderful tradition of knowledge among the Muslim people. The knowledge of the Sufis. And one of them writes: Not only man but all greats of being, the stone and the mineral, the plant and the animal have heard and understand the speech of God and praise Him according to their nature, mourn the separations from Him, and long to return to Him though we may be ignorant of their method of mourning and glorification.
So what is the heart of all that lives, of all the creatures, which are abound in the diversity of Nature? We are unaware of all that. We are unaware of the many the beauties at the invisible level.
Annie Besant, writing in her book the Ancient Wisdom, says that there are exquisite beauties, wonderful sounds, harmonies, everywhere around us, but our senses shut them out. And unless we are able to focus all our inner energy and focus it in whatever we are with, then perhaps we will not be able to know about the inner nature of things and if our mind becomes blunt then we become incapable of really feeling, seeing and knowing, even the obvious things. They say that the the difference between the spiritually developed person and ordinary human beings is that the ordinary person is aware of the suffering, the loneliness, the struggle of others, only when it is directly before him. As we feel a sympathy when someone close to us suffers. But there are millions of people who are suffering, who are struggeling, who are bewildered and don’t know what life is about, who are afraid of death, and we can not feel their sorrow.
The life of the Buddha, perhaps some of you have read that wonderful book of Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia, – incidentally I may say that Penguin is now publishing it and very large numbers of the book are being sold. In beautiful verse Edwin Arnold relates the life of the Buddha strictly according to how it is described in Buddhist tradition and the main part of his early life was the fact that he was kept in a kind of beautiful prison, a garden, palaces, lovely things, music, but he was not allowed to go outside that prison. But one day he demanded that he must be allowed to go. This was because a sage had prophesed that he would renounce the world or he would become an emperor and the king, his father, certainly did not want him to renounce the world and to give up his kingdom, and so he was afraid if this is so, what is happening in the world, he would give up his kingdom and all that he could enjoy. And then he was not yet the Buddha, the Prince, he saw an old man walking with difficulty, he saw somebody diseased, he saw a ded body being taken to the funeral and it stirred his heart so much that he decided that he will meditate until he obtained enlightenment and could understand why all this was happening and what the solution is. Now, this is not just a historical account. It is impossible to believe that this young man had never in his life seen somebody sick, among the many men and women who were part of relatives. Somebody must has fallen sick, some time or another. But it is an allegory, a symbol of how we live enclosed in our own pleasant way of living. In our own particular thoughts. And then we know nothing about the world. We ignore the suffering everywhere. We ignore the fact that this suffering seems endless and so we don’t give attention to the question of how sorrow can be eliminated.
What is the purpose of life? Are we born only in order to suffer? To endure illness, die? Is that all life means, living means? Or does it mean beginning to question? Trying to find out what there is in life, which makes it really worthwhile. What is real and what is unreal. This is a very important question. And the mind begins to reflect. That is all part of awareness, of really living.
The human being who is unable to examine life, to question, why our lives are as they are, full of miseries, struggle, disappointment, frustrations, etc. is not really human. So there is a great deal which is meant by the word awareness. It makes us aware of Nature, beauty everywhere, the complexity, the creativity, which is all presented to us in a marvellous way.
We are unable also to be aware of the confusion we ourselves create. How we create problems for ourselves. Why there should be tension between us. Is there no solution to inequality, injustice and so on? If we are not thinking about these things, then our awareness is very limited and therefor we are not living fully. This is quite a large question, but I won’t go on with it.
But there is also the question of dying. What does death mean? Why are we afraid of death? Why are we reluctant to let go of this body?
Death is as natural as birth and death is a phenomena which is extremely beneficial. I think this quotation is from Madame Blavatsky but I don’t remember from where exactly it comes. She writes that the organism lives because its parts are always dying. If the cells in our body where not constantly dying, our body could not survive. The life of the superior whole requires the death of the inferior. The death of the parts, depending on, and being subservient to it. This is all part of the process of life. And as life is death, so death is life and the whole great cycle of life forms but one existence.
There are cycles in life; minor cycles, major cycles. In our everyday life we find these cycles. And not only the seasons changing, the young becoming old, and the old giving place to the young, and so on. But all ordinary things in life. None of us can go on eating, however nutricious or delicious the food may be. You can only consume a certain amount and then you have to wait til that food has been assimilated and the essence of it absorbed into the body. So there is this cycle of eating and assimilating. A similar cycle is activity followed by rest and sleep. Again, nobody can go on being active endlessly. Soldiers are sometimes forced to march but a point comes when they can not march any more. They have to sleep because the body needs to rest and the brain needs to absorb to some extent what it can, the understanding of the experiences, which it has gone through. And that is a very important part of our sleep.
Krishnamurti says that the brain puts order into the events and experiences of the day. And that is also something which is part of Nature.
So is dying and living. When the body dies there is a process of assimilating the experiences and understanding those experiences in the subtler worlds, where consciousness still continues to function. So without that, if we continue to go on having experiences, it will not make us more mature, wiser, purer, less selfish.
We need to experience, and we have to learn from that experience. And every life cycle is meant for that. The body dies and the consciousness broods over the nature of the experiences and gains perhaps small insights, if it is not a developed consciousness, and deep understanding, if it is an evolved consciousness. So that process is part of the whole cyclic nature of existence.
From the evolutionary point of view, if creatures do not die evolution itself will come to an end.
In the days of dinasoures a long period of time passed before these animals died. Mutations could not take place, quickly. Changes could not be brought about. It was a very slow process. So the length of life must not be too short, so short that there is no experience. Nor must it be too long, because as a result of experience and understanding no change can be brought about, when the physical vehicle can not change. And therefor they say death is very important from the point of view of evolution.
There are many teachers from many cultures, many religious traditions, who speak about the necessity to die.
Physical death is necessary, so that we learn from our experiences. So that evolution can progress. But psychological death is also essential.
Why is their need to be afraid? The great Sufi and mystic teacher Rumi said, and you may be very familiar with the statement: I died a mineral and became a vegetable, I died a vegetable, a plant, and became an animal, I died an animal and became a human, I died a human and became an angel, or greater than human.
When they die, and become less, that is the question we ask.
Death is part of the movement of growth. But in another context Rumi said Oh man, go die before thou diest, so that thou shall not have to suffer death, when thou shall die.
How does one die before one dies? That is a major question which we have to understand. And similar statements have come from many people who knew, people with great insights, penetrating vision of the whole purpose and meaning of life. Angelus Silesius, a pronounced Christian mystic says: Die now, before thou dyest, that thou may not die when though shall die. Socrates say that also, that welcome death as a friend, because you will only be the better for dying. Of course that means dying in due time, for commiting suicide is most undesirable.
There is another mystic poet, Hafis of Shiraz, and he says: He whose heart is instinct with love never dies. So what does this dying mean?
Before we examine that question from the psychological and spiritual point of view, let us take note of the fact that the brain declines as more and more information and memories are stocked up in it. Some years ago in Russia they made a research and they announced that when the brain is all overloaded with information it deteriorates faster. Like any kind of machine. If you use a motor car continually it will of course have to be replaced much earlier, or something like that. And all during life, this brain is trying to collect information, because in all the earlier stages of evolution it was necessary. An animal living in a forest does not know what information will be of value to it in order to escape an enemy or to find food where food is scarce. An animal has to store up information about what a friend is like or an enemy. If the deer does not know the difference between a tiger and a lamb, then it will die very quickly. It has to divide the world into friends and enemies. But as man develops this division must become less and less strong, until it disappears all together. Madame Blavatsky in her Diagram of Meditation says that one of the results of meditating on infinite space and time is, that the reality of certain things – sensation, causation, personality – all that disappears. And one of the things that will disappear is the idea, that there are friends and foes. But the animal brain must know this difference between friend and foe. What is familiar and safe, and what is unfamiliar and concealing dangers, unknown. So all this is in the brain. It is continually recording information. The very structure of the brain is like that. We know, I am sure if we look at ourselves we know, that all the time we are gathering information which is utterly useless. Let’s say, so and so have changed her hairstyle. Is it necessary to remember that? And there are countless bits of information like this and which are kept in the brain. Because it goes on uncounsciously, collecting information, recording information. Under hypnosis it has been found, that people have far more memories than their conscious brain is able to bring up. So when the brain is loaded like this, it is unable to be aware.
If you look at a marvellous flower which is absolutely new, let us imagine there is a glorious flower which one has not seen before. When you see it for the first time it makes a tremendous impact on the consciousness of beauty, of delicacy, etc. but the next time you see it, the impact is less. If you see it a hundred times it makes no impact at all. There are people who live next to the alps or the wonderful Himalayan mountains and who are not conscious of it.
All our daily life is dependent on recognizing things. You must recognize your house when you go near it, otherwise you may enter into sombody elses house and be unwelcome. But that can not happen because for practical purposes we need to score certain things, remember, recognize and act accordingly. But this recognition apply to totally unnessecary things, like as we said what hairstyle somebody has or what is the food that person eats and so on. You know, all sorts of gossip and everything. Then that memory works like that. All recognition means memory and then the mind is not able to see afresh. To see the texture of the leaf, the symmetry of it, the cloud in the paper, and so on. It becomes obtuse and what does the death do? When the body wether and it is cremated or buried, all memory disappears with it. We have the privilige of coming into a new incarnation with a fresh brain, so you can look at everything afresh, so that you can experience things without that memory and that is how understanding growths, because in everything there is something hidden.
In the great scriptures of India called Upanishads they said: There is a truth of truths, a supreme truth hidden in all things. In the Mahatma Letters they say: There is a latent meaning and a hidden purpose in all things. But we are not aware of it. And only by being aware of it will we have right relationship.
We can not have relationship if we do not see things well and truly. And that relationship is the biggest problem in the world today. And that is why the Theosophical Society has an important role to play in the world.
There is no real problem for example of poverty. Mr Gandhi said: ”There is enough in the world for everybodys need, but not for everybodys greed.” And this is true. Even economists probably will agree with that and he was a sort of economist. And poverty exists, miserable poverty. You must go to the slums in Brazil or India, or any of these countries, and see how people live there, while there are others who are so enormously rich, they don’t know what to do with that money. There are people in the advantage states with enough money to by up a whole country. I was reading a short time ago in News Week that the very rich don’t go to the five star hotel in the holiday resort. They take on higher and entire Caribean islands, with all the staff and everything that they need there. So welth exists next to poverty. All this is because something is utterly wrong with our perception and therefor with our relationship. When our perception is not clear we dont see the truth of things, our relationship can not be right.
One of the very known examples given by the Indian tradition is the demonstration of the snake and the rope. When a person sees something coiled up, and he thinks it is a snake, he can become violent. He may push other people away so that he can run away more quickly, but when he realized it is a rope he wouldn’t act like that.
So to be aware, to see clearly, to be able to penetrate into the depth, the essence of all things is very important. And that is what living means. We can not learn that without dying. Without allowing our brain to be completely replaced, with a new brain, in a new body. And passing through many incarnations, coming to understand much more of the Truth of truths. The hidden noumenon, as Madame Blavatsky calls it. And that is the whole purpose of human life. To come to that wisdom which transforms our entire outlook on life.
An outlook of a realized person who is full of compassion, radiant with love, love which is not selective, limited, but boundless, is very different from that of an ordinary man. So I think it is important that we contemplate this question of living and dying. If we live properly, it will give great joy. It will be a full life. And if we understand death, we can die peacefully. Not struggle against it. Not be afraid. But learn through that process.
In theosophical writing it is said the moment of death is very important. As you know many people have experienced the Near-Death-Experience. They say coming to a light, which shows them what is what. What they did wrong and what is right. And Blavatskys says, that that light is the light of our own immortal nature, and for a short time the previligie is given of coming into contact with our true self. So apart from everything else that carries with it, it is a wonderful gift. Even if it is a momentary insight, we should never be afraid of it. Never moorn the loss of people who died, but take it calmly, as part of the whole cycle of living.